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Trailblazers highlight Founders Day event

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  • woman at podium
  • man at podium
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Posted on November 20, 2018

Seven trailblazers, including people who were among the first African Americans at Grand Valley as students or faculty members, led a Founders Day event for students.

"Paving the Way for Future Generations" was held October 24 at the Alumni House. Chris Barbee, director of alumni relations, said the idea came to him while visiting the Grand Rapids Public Museum with his daughter. Barbee said he noticed an exhibit highlighting the late Dr. Julius Franks and other African Americans who in 1962 led integration in the Auburn Hills neighborhood in Grand Rapids by purchasing property to establish middle-class housing for people of color.

Franks was also among the founders of Grand Valley and the only African American. "I started to wonder how many people knew that an African American man was among the founding members of Grand Valley," Barbee said.

The idea of highlighting "firsts" took off and Barbee enlisted help from Human Resources and others on campus to compile a list of notables.

Along with Franks, six other African Americans were highlighted: Curtis Joseph Jones, first male professor; Julianne Vanden Wyngaard, first female professor; James Moore, first male student to enroll at Grand Valley in 1963; Betty Burton Groce, first woman to serve on the Grand Valley Foundation board; Danny Poole, first student athlete to earn a scholarship; and Ron Gates, who portrayed the Great Laker.

Moore stressed how different the campus was in 1963, with one building and 200 students. "It was a big, bold experiment; Grand Valley took a chance on us and we took a chance on Grand Valley," he said.

Moore earned a bachelor's degree in political science and later two master's degrees from Aquinas College and Michigan State University. He worked in human resources, job placement and social work before retiring from full-time work in 2008.

After sharing their experiences with students, panelists offered advice to be successful in college and career.

Barbee said students asked questions and stayed after to connect with panelists. "I hope that students walked away with an idea of what it was like to be in a population where not a lot of people looked like you, and understand the challenges they faced," he said.

The event was sponsored by Alumni Relations, the African American Alumni Chapter and the Division of Inclusion and Equity.